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Writing Young Adult and Children's Science Fiction & Fantasy:
Make the Impossible Possible

(Originally published in the February 2002 issue of Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute for Children's Literature)

By Marnie Brooks

writing science fiction and fantasy for children

Editor's Note:

This article comes to The Purple Crayon nearly two years after it was first published in Children's Writer, but the conditions it describes still exist. The only point I want to add is to address whether or not the Harry Potter phenomenon has had an effect on children's publishers. Most will tell you that it hasn't. They either like or don't like science fiction and fantasy. Maybe so, but they are more likely to be willing to offer sizable advances for "properties" (usually presented by agents or by UK publishers) that are perceived as being potential best sellers. I've seen published reports of several in the past year, involving sales of trilogies or other small series for advances of hundreds of thousands or in one case of over a million dollars. That didn't happen before HP. Of course, for the average writer, not much has changed, but for someone who has created a truly exciting and original work, the good news is that science fiction and fantasy are now considered to be capable of reaching a wide audience.

Writing fantastic stories about wily wizards or enigmatic extraterrestrials is easy: If you believe this, you've inhaled too many magic potions or are lost in orbit around planet Dreamon.

Subjects for science fiction and fantasy are as limitless as imagination. Protagonists can travel through time, through inner, outer, or cyberspace, and live in magical realms or alternate universes. Stories can be high fantasy, with swords and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. They can be futuristic techno-thrillers of science and machines; chilling horrors of darkest evil; or the wild and weird of cyberpunk.

No matter what the form, successful science fiction and fantasy writers suspend disbelief. They make the impossible possible. While a magic wand, alien superpowers, or a new invention might help, believable science fiction and fantasy writing must have a true grasp on reality.

A Sense of Place

"For me, so-called high fantasy is the hardest to find. The models are daunting," says Stephen Roxburgh, Front Street Books President and Publisher. "What specifically draws me to science fiction/fantasy is the integrity of the imagined world and its fundamental principles. Tolkien or Gibson, Wangerin or Asimov, Jacques or Brunner, Le Guin or Alexander–it doesn't matter. Each establishes coherent, consistent worlds that work according to immutable laws."

HarperCollins Senior Editor Ruth Katcher, who edited fantasist Garth Nix's Abhorsen, is impressed with the mastery and simplicity of classics like A Wrinkle in Time, as well as work by newer writers such as Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman. "Any novelist must create an entire imagined world, but the one created by a writer of science fiction and fantasy must be rock solid," says Katcher, "even though it may differ in important physical ways from the world we live in."

"After the basics of excellent writing, engaging characters, and a compelling plot, what attracts me to good fantasy is just what the word implies: that it draws us into a strange but believable world where we can experience rare or magical events that are impossible in real life," says Carol Saller, Editor at Cricket Books. "Great science fiction takes our knowledge of science and extends it in fantastic but believable ways. It impresses us with ingenuity; it thrills us with possibilities."

"The imaginative element is essential for me," says Gordon Van Gelder, Editor and Publisher of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. He finds that most new writers fail to create a believable sense of place, which is paramount for science fiction or fantasy.

Cricket and Cicada "have a real need for science fiction and fantasy," says Editor Deborah Vetter. "Science fiction that revolves around futuristic whiz-bang technology is generally not successful for us. We're looking for science fiction that explores the human psyche, even if the 'human' are aliens. Loneliness, jealousy, friendship, overcoming fear of the unknown, testing oneself in an alien environment–themes that work in ordinary fiction. If a story takes place in a spaceship or space station, we like to see scientifically sound information about weightlessness or other elements of life in that environment. If the setting is a planet, it needs to be a fully realized setting."

Character Charisma

Archetypes are staples of the genre– reluctant champions, rowdy dwarves, aloof elves, elusive unicorns, wicked wizards, green-skinned aliens–but they need not be copies of past classics or present successes. The science fiction and fantasy writer's biggest challenge is to make them truly one-of-a-kind, and go two steps beyond to make them real.

"What may be more difficult for a science fiction/fantasy writer is that the characters must be as fully human (even if they're not human), sympathetic (even if they're not particularly nice), and understandable as any character in a work of realistic fiction," explains Katcher.

Although Van Gelder likes fiction that's well plotted and suspenseful, he "definitely favors character-driven stories over idea-driven pieces."

At Cricket Books, Saller finds that inexperienced science fiction and fantasy writers waste creative energy thinking up quirky names for characters that are purely good or evil, rather than complex people with whom readers can sympathize. "They are too often content with one-dimensional characters and plots that depend on coincidence."

"Let readers see the possibilities of life in space–but also have an emotionally involving story with characters they can identify with," says Vetter. "For fantasy, our readers especially like high fantasy. Robin McKinley and Charles de Lint come to mind for Cicada, and for Cricket, Teresa Bateman's stories about fairies, mermaids, princesses, and dragons."

Elementary Elements

Science fiction and fantasy appeal to fans from 2 to 92, but writing it for various ages requires an understanding of different comprehension levels.

Paula Morrow, Editor of Ladybug, for ages two to six, would like to see more science fiction and fantasy at an age appropriate level. "lt's important to know developmental stages when writing for young children," she says. "Magic doesn't work well for two-year-olds because they're not firmly based in reality yet and everything is still magic for them."

"Spider readers, ages six to nine, adore science fiction and fantasy," says the magazine's assistant editor Heather Delabre. "One of the best science fiction stories we've published in Spider is 'Cows from Outer Space,' by Jeanne Modesitt (June 1999). It's funny, whimsical, and outrageous. Fantasy stories always intrigue our readers, too. They love magic and imagined creatures."

Highlights for Children accepts science fiction and fantasy for a large span, ages 4 to 12." We publish fantasy stories relatively often," says Associate Editor Judy Burke. "Many have a humorous element to them. Although I'm reluctant to list specific types of fantasy that we are likely to accept (we can use only so many dragon stories), we consider a pretty broad range. Stories should not contain violence: Don't kill the dragon!"

Fantasy & Science Fiction is open to submissions with young adult characters. "As for stories aimed at young adults, I've always found that hard to define," Van Gelder admits. "I consider our ideal reader to be 13 or 14, but I don't respond well to stories that seem like they're talking down to the reader."


Publishers either love or loathe science fiction and fantasy, and in the past, more didn't like it. That was daunting news to genre enthusiasts, but the number of editors who crave it continues to grow. A good way to cast a spell on editors or transport them to another dimension is to first read what's out there–past and present.

"Science fiction and fantasy have never been my favorite genres as a reader, but I'm quickly learning to appreciate both," Saller confides. "Because I want to be more open to these submissions, I've started reading high-quality science fiction and fantasy."

"What attracts me to any genre is good storytelling," Roxburgh says. "The best science fiction and fantasy is that and I've read the classics in both. Currently, I'm reading Delany's Dhalgren and rereading some older cyberfiction, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash."

Vetter is open to stand alone novel excerpts for Cicada. "We are also interested in seeing original novellas up to 15,000 words." She suggests that authors look at "Cafe La Rose," by Julia Cunningham in the May/June 2001 issue. "Although that's realistic fiction, we're eager to publish novellas in other genres as well–including fantasy, science fiction, and humor."

"I read a lot of science fiction as a teenager: the classics by Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Le Guin, H.G.Wells," Katcher says. "My adult tastes lean more toward fantasy than science fiction, though I like seeing what happens when you blur the lines between the two. It's interesting to speculate about what if the world were different, and in science fiction and fantasy, that speculation is centered in the physical world."

Delabre notes that authors sometimes have difficulty writing in these genres for six-to-nine-year-olds. "Although children of this age love the fantastic, they still like to be able to relate some of the story to their own lives. For example, Xon in the 'The Great Crater Hop' (July 2001) is a headstrong boy who loves to play video games and go skateboarding. It just so happens that Xon also lives on the moon and gets trapped in orbit, with only a weak radio transmission to save him. Xon is a 'regular kid' in an exotic setting–our readers love stories like this."


Imitators beware! Superb science fiction and fantasy is like the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, either very, very good, or horrid.

"Books that aren't coherent and fully imagined aren't worthy of the genre," Roxburgh says. "Read the classics and seriously reconsider the genre you want to write in. If you don't turn back ('Ye who enter here, abandon all hope') be faithful–I use the word deliberately–to the world you imagine. I have zero tolerance for imitators.''

"Plots are often episodic: just one trial after another until some contrivance ends the quest," Saller says of poor submissions. "We are looking for good manuscripts in these genres and unfortunately don't have anything coming out soon."

Susannah Powell, Assistant Editor of The Crystal Ball, sees many "Tolkien rip-offs." While the magazine is open to all science fiction and fantasy forms, she isn't partial to horror or cyberpunk. "I like material based in reality. Our target audience is middle school and we want to see magnificent storytelling."

Burke advises writers to study Highlights and its guidelines. "We don't publish a lot of science fiction, but that's mainly because it's difficult to find good science fiction that feels right for us and doesn't exceed our word limits."

"We always get more fantasy than we can publish and never enough science fiction or humor," Fantasy & Science Fiction's Van Gelder notes. "I read a lot of mimetic fiction. Most of it is boring because it doesn't take any risks."

"Things to avoid for Cricket and Cicada are fairy tale spoofs, unless they are extremely clever," Vetter says. "We see so many and can use only a few of the best."

Not Factual, but True

In her book of essays, The Language of the Night, National Book Award winner and science fiction and fantasy maven Ursula Le Guin wrote, "For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it is true. Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books."

So, like any brave hero, whether Tolkien's steadfast Frodo or the courageous Harry Potter, science fiction and fantasy writers can create good books–superb ones–with research, reading, a dash of reality, and imagination that's truly out of this world.

Useful Resource

The Science Fiction Writers of America: Lots of information about science fiction and fantasy, and writing info.

The Young Adult Fantasy Guide: Stuff for Writers: Links to useful articles.

More useful sites, from a question I answered in my blog.

The Fantasy Novelist's Exam: Tongue in cheek, but it makes some good points about cliches to avoid.

Marnie Brooks:

Writing good fantasy and science fiction is tough, but opens portals and new worlds for those who venture into the genre. F/SF authors have a strong understanding of a specific story form, but their real talent comes from being able to create logical reasons that support their ideas (and make believers out of readers). Marnie Brooks, an avid F/SF reader, has been a writer/editor for 20 years and lives in North Carolina.

Copyright 2002, 2003, and 2004 by Marnie Brooks. All rights reserved.

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